Swilcan Bridge stooshie in St Andrews betrays golf's loathing of change – Martyn McLaughlin

Anyone who followed every fallout from the imposition of tolls on Skye or the pained decade-long effort to build the Queensferry Crossing will know that Scotland is no stranger to a bridge-related stooshie. Even when the structure in question is altogether more modest in scale, troubled waters are never far away.

So it proved this week at the home of golf, where the good intentions of the custodians of the Old Course at St Andrews prompted the sort of outcry ordinarily reserved for the unveiling of the Turner prize shortlist. Frustrated at the continued disrepair of the turf around the approach to the Swilcan Bridge, the famous Roman arch-type crossing over the burn that winds between the first and 18th fairways, the folk at the St Andrews Links Trust came up with what they hoped would be an agreeable solution.

A newly laid paved area was constructed at one side of the bridge so as to better cope with the footfall. But as soon as photographs of the alterations began to circulate online, the criticism was intense. Some wits likened it to a suburban cul-de-sac, with others insisting that it would have been better suited to a garden patio than a championship golf course, photoshopping barbecues and loungers onto the images to illustrate their point.

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Many of those opposed to the paving had little time for such humour, variously describing the works as a “monstrosity”, an “abomination”, and akin to “drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa”. The apoplexy was especially pronounced amongst US golf aficionados, with Peter Kostis, the veteran golf analyst and instructor, characterising it as “a disaster” that would become an “epic disaster” if unaddressed.

Tiger Woods acknowledges the Old Course crowd as he crosses the Swilcan Bridge during last year's Open (Picture: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Tiger Woods acknowledges the Old Course crowd as he crosses the Swilcan Bridge during last year's Open (Picture: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Tiger Woods acknowledges the Old Course crowd as he crosses the Swilcan Bridge during last year's Open (Picture: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

The trustees, to their credit, responded swiftly to the growing backlash, and by Tuesday morning, the offending stones had been removed, with the ground set to be reinstated with turf. The initial decision, they stressed, had been made to protect the course, but they conceded that the look was not in keeping with the “iconic setting”.

There are many lessons to be learned from the whole sorry affair, but chief among them is the need for perspective. Such hysterical pearl-clutching by Mr Kostis and others may have achieved its goal, but in doing so, it also exposed how golf remains uniquely capable of stirring the passions of white men of a certain age, especially when it comes to the issue of change.

Anyone in doubt of golf's reluctance to embrace that concept would do well to remember that some of Scotland's most historic clubs still operated a men-only policy as recently as three years ago. Such anachronisms persist in other parts of the world, but thankfully their footprint is small, and it is receding year by year.

I do not think it is too much of a reach to presume that some of those golfers who resisted such long overdue transitions towards inclusivity will have been among those aggrieved about the works surrounding the Swilcan. Not everyone is attuned to the symbolism of bridges, and the vocal ranks of golfing purists undoubtedly fall into that category.

None of which is to infer that their criticism of the Old Course’s custodians was invalid. Was it overblown? Without a doubt. But was it wrong? The answer to that question depends on your point of view. In sport, as in so much else, history and tradition occupy a special and emotional role, and that is especially true of a location which occupies a unique place in golfing iconography.

Generations of fans have followed in the footsteps of Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods by crossing over the burn, pausing at the top to capture the moment for posterity. But golfers, arguably, make up the minority of those who have visited the Swilcan over the years. By virtue of an act of parliament, the renowned links is not only one of golf’s most celebrated courses, it is a public park and a “place of public resort and recreation”.

Visit on any Sunday afternoon and you will see countless children, families, and dog walkers enjoying that right. Countless graduates and newly married couples have had their photographs taken on the Swilcan Bridge, and several people have even chosen it to scatter the ashes of their loved ones. It is constantly busy, and though the price of that may be added wear and tear, the trustees have done a fine job balancing the competing demands.

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It is a special place for many people, and it should come as no surprise to see those who cherish it cleave to the status quo. But that mindset is flawed. Throughout every stage of its storied past, the Old Course has been in a state of perpetual evolution. The links were not substantially laid out in the form we recognise today until the turn of the 20th century, and many of its charms and quirks, such as the ‘double’ greens, were not in situ until the Victorian era.

The Swilcan Bridge itself has also changed beyond all recognition over the years, and anyone lost in misty-eyed fantasies of pack horses traversing the crossing in the late Middle Ages might well benefit from a history lesson. As recently as 170 years ago, the bridge would have been unrecognisable. It was once a far more grand and imposing structure, but as a result of works undertaken to rebuild the burn’s banks and shore up the surrounding ground, around half of the original bridge now lies underground.

And who was the architect of that particular scheme? None other than Old Tom Morris, one of the sport’s most famous custodians, and a celebrated greenkeeper and course designer whose own legacy is inextricably linked to that of the Old Course. It might be an inconvenient truth for the self-appointed guardians of golfing heritage, but it is one they should consider the next time they get their knickers in a twist.



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